Status Frustration: Definition & Theory

Instructor: Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

In this lesson, we'll talk about the theory of status frustration, which the sociologist Albert Cohen developed to explain why working class boys engage in delinquent behavior.

Albert Cohen and Status Frustration Theory

Why do we see more crime in some parts of society than in others? This was a question of particular interest to the sociologist Albert Cohen, who set out to develop a theory about why we see certain forms of delinquency. In this lesson, we'll talk about the major points of status frustration theory, developed by Cohen to explain why we see delinquency in working class males in particular. Let's go over the major points of this theory now.

Status Frustration

Before we get too far into the theory, we should define what we mean by status frustration. Cohen came up with this idea of status frustration to describe how working class men feel frustrated by an inability to achieve the same status as members of the middle or upper class. Basically, delinquency is a kind of reaction to feeling out of place in society--for example, feeling like you won't be able to access resources or opportunities that other people can. Let's talk a bit more in depth about what this theory means.

Subcultures and Dominant Values

Cohen thought that there are dominant values that are found in a society, and we are all expected to more or less abide by these values. Or, put another way, we're expected to live up to them. Specifically, Cohen is concerned with middle class values of achievement, individuality, ambition, and delayed gratification. Cohen thought these values stem directly from middle class socialization and they dominate the American value system. But, for working class males, these values are difficult to achieve because of the environment working class youths are socialized in. The problem here, as Cohen sees it, is that working class youths are judged for not living up to values they really never could in the first place. Cohen calls this a middle class measuring rod. By this, he means that working class males simply won't be able to measure up to the standards expected of middle class youths.

So, there's a tension here that puts working class youths in a difficult position. The youths are unable to attain the status expected of them, and they become frustrated with their position in society. So what happens when you can't achieve that status that is expected of you? Here's where Cohen's argument about subcultures comes in. Basically, working class youths form a kind of subculture in response to being excluded from middle class values. This subculture consists of behaviors we normally think of as criminal. It includes things like violence, vandalism, stealing, and fighting.

According to Cohen, this allows working class youths to gain a sense of status when they have been unable to achieve any sense of status within our dominant framework. This is because within the subculture, these behaviors are valued more than middle class values. So on the face of it, things like vandalism or graffiti seem like non utilitarian delinquency, meaning there seems little value in committing them. But, in fact, what Cohen shows is they do have a function in that they provide working class youths with status, which is more important than things like money.

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